Bryan Bedder / Getty Images / The New Yorker

Snowden lashes out at US government for keeping drone program secret

In wake of fresh leaks, debate rages on whether more information should be shared with American public

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y — National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden and one of the top lawyers for the U.S. Intelligence Community, Robert Litt, gave back-to-back speeches at an academic gathering on Friday that addressed major controversies over government surveillance, basic privacy protections and the freedom of information.

But the most revealing exchanges during their talks centered on new leaks about the U.S. drone program, made possible by an unknown whistleblower.

The comments by Snowden and Litt were part of a conference on privacy and surveillance organized by Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities.

The statements by Snowden and Litt seemed to reflect the two highly polarized camps in the debate over national security and the freedom of information.

“Why can we not have these issues heard in an open court, until an individual, an ordinary citizen, risks their freedom or their life to share this information with the press, in a situation where we know they will be punished?” Snowden asked rhetorically, addressing the auditorium over a video link from Russia.

The newly published documents exposed previously secret details of the U.S. government’s secretive drone war, including new information that raises serious concerns about the accuracy and effectiveness of drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.

The Intercept and the Huffington Post co-published parts of the documents on Thursday in “The Drone Papers.”

Shortly after their release, Snowden weighed in on Twitter: “When we look back on today, we will find the most important national security story of the year.”

On Friday, Snowden asked why the U.S. government has withheld so much information about the drone program.

Ben Wizner, Snowden’s lawyer and director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, echoed those sentiments.

“As far as I can see, having looked at the stories in some depth yesterday, this is all information that is vital for the public in a democracy to have access to,” Wizner said. “I think that The Intercept should be congratulated. The person who provided this information to The Intercept should be thanked.”

After Snowden’s speech, Litt, second general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, began another discussion on privacy and surveillance.

The Intercept’s material detailed a “kill chain” under the drone policy.

“This outrageous explosion of watch-listing — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the anonymous source told The Intercept.

The drone program has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. A 2013 report by rights group Amnesty International that documented collateral deaths from the program called it “potentially unlawful,” and comedian John Oliver dedicated an episode of his popular HBO program Last Week Tonight to the controversy and secrecy surrounding the Unites States’ use of drones to fight the war on terror.

Snowden expressed hopes on Friday that the new leaks will encourage more government insiders to step forward and talk to the media when they see potential abuses of power.

“Whistleblowers are elected by circumstance. It's not about who you are. It's not about what your credentials are,” Snowden said. “It's about what you see, and ultimately the choice to do something about it.”

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